Free Style Guide for Reporting Road Traffic Incidents

I present here, for free use by anyone without royalties or acknowledgement a style guide for journalists reporting road traffic incidents, with a special focus on those incidents which include one or more cyclists.

  • Accident.‘ ‘Accident’ is a word which is best avoided unless used in a court ruling. Whilst many deaths and injuries resulting from traffic collisions are not malicious and the term ‘accident’ may appear to be a useful term for conveying this, it implies a lack of blame which may not yet have been tested in court. A traffic collision may be the result of negligence on the part of one or more parties which, whilst not necessarily malicious, can not be accurately described as an ‘accident.’
  • ‘Collided with.’ The term ‘collided with’ is perfectly acceptable when describing an incident involving a vehicle and a stationary object, for example, ‘motorist collides with house.’ ‘Car collides with house’ is less appropriate as it implies that the collision was caused by the car rather than its driver. Where the phrase ‘collided with’ becomes unacceptable is when describing a collision where the party at fault is not yet known. Oddly this is particularly common when reporting collisions involving cyclists and motorists, with terms such as ‘cyclist collides with car’ being particularly common for cyclist-motorist collisions despite the language suggesting either a cyclist colliding with an empty, stationary car or a motorist-cyclist collision which was the fault of the cyclist. To retain neutrality, phrasing such as ‘a vehicle collision between a motorist and a cyclist’ is preferred.
  • Who was not wearing a helmet.‘ This phrase is never acceptable when referring to a cyclist involved in a collision. There are two main reasons for this, firstly it implies that the cyclist is at fault for the injuries they sustained for not using an optional item of personal protective equipment at a time when the party responsible for the collision is unlikely to be known for certain (in motorist-cyclist collisions it is unlikely that the cyclist was even partially at fault). Secondly, the protective benefits offered by cycle helmets to their wearers in the even of a collision involving a motor vehicle are effectively non-existent. Prominently referring the a cyclists choice not to wear a cycle helmet in a report on a collision in which they were involved suggests that cycle helmets offer a level of protection significantly greater than in reality. Where the cyclist was injured or killed as a result of the collision, this use of language is particularly disrespectful and inappropriate.
  • The road was closed for x hours.’ When reporting an incident in which one party was seriously injured or killed, it is importance to give this fact greater prominence than the fact that the road on which the incident occurred was closed for a period of time as a result. Giving greater prominence to the inconvenience of some road users than the death or potentially life-changing injury of an individual involved in a traffic collision is extremely callous and should be avoided.

Any other aspects of crash reporting get on your nerves? Leave a comment and I’ll add the best ones to the list.

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12 thoughts on “Free Style Guide for Reporting Road Traffic Incidents

  1. (especially after someone has died) ‘the road was closed for four hours after …’ as if the inconvenience to other motorists was the main point of the story

  2. Personally, I dislike the use of “collision” altogether in relation to cyclists or pedestrians. Dictionary definitions of collision or collide are not terrbly helpful, but they do seem to imply a coming together of two or more objects of comparable mass and velocity.

    Perhaps the most absurd misuse of the term therefore would be “a pedestrian was in collision with a heavy goods vehicle while crossing the A27 near Chichester” (almost verbatim from local paper).

    Also, we tend to think of collisions as involving two objects moving in opposite directions or at least towards each other. That isn’t accurate of course – two protons in a nuclear reaction could collide when one catches the other up from behind – but it gives a false impression of most vehicle/cyclist-pedestrian incidents where in reality the vehicle is travelling in the same direction as the cyclist or pedestrian and hits them from behind or from the side. And, as you say (I think) it subtly implies that the vulnerable party was to blame, even though that is quite likely not to be the case.

    I woudld much prefer journalists to use the accurate description of what has happened “a cyclist/pedestrian was knocked down/run over by a car …..”

  3. Australian journalists will use all of the above when reporting on a dead or injured cyclist. But only cyclists. Not, for instance, jet ski riders.
    This story about a swimmer killed by a jet ski rider
    http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-02-25/swimmer-critical-after-being-hit-by-jet-ski/3852386
    says “two men riding a jet ski rammed into him.”
    A car driver though is never to blame. Even stationary objects are more at fault than the driver.
    This story
    http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/south-australia/man-killed-when-car-strikes-tree-on-south-rd-bedford-park/story-e6frea83-1226275378620
    has been amended but originally included the line “Markings at the scene show the green Toyota hatch had travelled down Ayliffes Rd and on to South Rd before veering into the path of the tree.”

  4. A niggly point, ‘collision btween car driver & cyclist’ sounds like the cyclist has run over a person getting out of the car. The vehicle is the item in the collision regardless of who is controlling it. To my mind that wording gives a worse impression than usual. I would suggest something more like ‘collision between a moving vehicle and a cyclist’ it is factually more accurate and it shows the very likely lack of physical consequence to the driver.

    Also to Paul, collision was brought into legal parlance to supersede accident for the reasons in MrC’s blog. Its hard to find a word that works. Incident doesn’t cut it IMO and pretty much anything else can have a prejudicial connotation.

    • The language here is difficult because people are often identified by their preferred mode if transport. I still feel like a cyclist when I use other modes, bit it would be odd to report that a cyclist was killed if I was hit by a train whilst on foot. The language needs to be precise and avoid the problem we have at present with cyclists being involved in collisions with driver-less cars. I’ll have a think about a re-phrase.

    • I find it interesting that the human element is removed from the car but not from the bicycle. Consider, for example, “a collision between a car and a bicycle” or “a collision between a driver and a cyclist”. Is something subtle going on here or is it just me?

  5. Oh! I have one — when they say, “The driver was not hurt in the collision.” It just seems so … um, yeah OF COURSE the driver wasn’t hurt, he/she killed a cyclist, but was safe in many tons of steel.

  6. Generally, when referring to the people who drive cars and the space that they use:

    Motorist/driver
    The term ‘motorist’ confers an elevated status upon people who drive cars. Accordingly it is the noun used by drivers when they wish to lobby for cheaper fuel or to protest about taxation. ‘Driver’ or ‘car driver’ is preferable in most circumstances.

    Road/street
    The noun ‘road’ is generally taken to mean a throughfare for motor vehicles travelling at speed. Where it can accurately be used, the noun ‘street’ is preferable – because it avoids the connotation that the space outside people’s residences somehow belongs to drivers.

  7. I’ve taken this up with a local journalist and been told that she won’t mention the driver for fear of contempt of court if they’re ever prosecuted. Anyone know the law on this?

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